CHOICE opposes sports drink health claims as ‘misleading consumers’
Consumer group CHOICE has said it believes that allowing sports drinks to carry health claims will “mislead consumers into believing that sports drinks are generally a healthy option” and has warned the Australian food regulator not to be sweet talked by the beverage industry.
Standards to regulate health claims were introduced in 2013 so that consumers would not be misled. A product must meet certain strict criteria for energy, sugars, sodium and other key nutrients in order to carry a health claim like “improves hydration” or “reduces cholesterol”.
FSANZ runs public consultation on proposed health claims changes
A public consultation process run by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is considering whether electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade should be able to carry health claims and bypass this consumer protection test.
FSANZ has assessed a proposal and has prepared a draft food regulatory measure to permit formulated supplementary sports foods (FSSFs), electrolyte drinks and electrolyte drink bases (EDs) to carry health claims related to their respective purposes. Given their related purpose, this proposal would also transfer the regulation of EDs from Standard 2.6.2 – Non-Alcoholic Beverages and Brewed Soft Drinks to Standard 2.9.4 – Formulated Supplementary Sports Foods. Pursuant to section 61 of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 (FSANZ Act), FSANZ has called for submissions to assist consideration of the draft food regulatory measure.
“Rules about health claims were introduced last year to stop situations where you had clearly unhealthy products like sweets and chocolates making claims that they were 99 per cent fat free,” said CHOICE spokesperson Tom Godfrey. “There’s extensive research showing that any specific health claim gives a product a ‘halo effect’ and people believe the product is healthier overall,” he said.
“People should have the confidence that if a product has a health claim, then it is a healthier product,” Mr Godfrey said. “Creating a loophole for sports drinks is a backwards step,” he said.
Mr Godfrey said sports drinks could help elite athletes but they “aren’t designed for everyday use”.
“Yet drinks like Gatorade and Powerade are marketed and sold to everyone,” Mr Godfrey said. “Most people will receive no health benefit from a bright blue sugar drink. Sports drinks belong on the shelves next to Coke and Lemonade, not in the health food aisle and the claims on the label need to reflect this,” he said.
“Sports drinks are high in sugar, salt and kilojoules,” Mr Godfrey said. “A regular 600ml bottle of Gatorade has 36g of sugar; compare this to a standard can of coke, which at 375 mL contains 40g sugar,” he said.
Mr Godfrey said research conducted by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) showed that people drinking sports drinks do so when they are thirsty, hot or are simply outdoors. In some cases people used sports drinks as a cure for a hangover or cramps, according to the research.
“Sports drinks are widely available,” Mr Godfrey said. “You can find them in supermarkets, corner stores, vending machines and are often placed at point of sale to encourage impulse purchases. They’re clearly marketed to a wide audience and it makes no sense to allow health claims that would only apply to a small group of athletes,” he said.
“We are calling on FSANZ to put the consumer first and not to proceed with these changes,” Mr Godfrey said.
Health groups also against health claims changes
Health organisation the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) has also said the the proposed changes could mislead consumers into thinking sports drinks “were healthier choices than water”.
“These new health claims are only relevant to serious sportspeople, however currently these products are marketed to, and consumed by, large numbers of Australians, who may already perceive them as a ‘healthier’ alternative,” said Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the OPC. “This change has potential to add to the impression that these products are beneficial for anyone who engages in sport,” she said.
Ms Martin said most Australians did not meet the national physical activity guidelines, which recommended exercise of 2.5 to 5 hours at moderate intensity per week, so the proposed health claims were only relevant to a small minority of consumers.
“For the majority of consumers, a Gatorade and a Coke contribute around the same amount of energy to the diet, which for many people is excess to requirements and not recommended as part of a healthy diet,” Ms Martin said.
‘Minimal changes’ will benefit consumers, Australian Beverages Council
Beverage industry representative body the Australian Beverages Council said that minimal changes to the labelling of sports drinks would have benefit to consumers.
“The changes to the labelling of sports drinks (also known as Electrolyte drinks) proposed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand are designed to provide consumers with information on the beverages they are consuming,” said Geoff Parker, CEO of the Australian Beverages Council.
Mr Parker said he was confident consumers would not buy unsuitable products as a result of the new claims.
“Having scientifically substantiated claims clearly stated on the labels we hope will further assist consumers in making sure that particular types of drinks are right for them,” Mr Parker said. “It’s something the industry is very open about – that these types of sports drinks are absolutely for people who engage in intensive exercise,” he said.
“These drinks are not suitable for a kids’ swimming carnival, when the eight-year-old only has to swim 25 metres,” Mr Parker said. “In most instances, water is absolutely the best drink for them,” he said.
“As a parent, it’s certainly my responsibility to understand and approve what is the best drink for whatever occasion it might be for my 13-year-old,” Mr Parker said.